The Japanese Super App Race: Who Is Winning?

Posted By Jim Kersey

With the emergence of super apps and their ability to integrate multiple services, from ecommerce and payments to social media and transportation, consumers, brands and marketers worldwide are faced with the compelling challenge of navigating this revolutionary concept.

This article explores the key considerations that have influenced the success of super apps in Japan like LINE and Rakuten—currently trying to bridge the gap between innovation and traditional app paradigms.

Table of Contents

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What Is A Super App?

A super app is a single mobile application that combines a wide range of services and functionalities into a seamless and integrated user experience.

Instead of using many separate apps for different tasks, a super app combines several services all in one place. This can include messaging, social networking, financial services, shopping, and more.

While specific features can differ app to app, key similarities across all of them include a user-friendly interface, seamless integration between multiple services, and personalization based on user behavior.

These super apps aim to cater to as many aspects of a user’s daily life as possible, and their appeal for users lies in streamlining the user experience, reducing app clutter, and providing a more rewarding and engaging experience across an array of services.

Read Our Overview of Japanese Consumer Preferences

Western vs Asian Super Apps

Meta super app mobile screen

Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and China, has been at the forefront of super app innovation. Companies like WeChat, Grab, Gojek and Alipay have pioneered the concept, offering users a single platform for a plethora of services, from messaging and social networking to ride-hailing, food delivery, and financial services.

This trend has been supported by the rapid adoption of smartphones in Asia and evolving consumer preferences, with platforms seamlessly capitalizing on their existing user bases and integrating new features that combine to offer a more convenient and unified experience.

Slower Super App Adoption in the West

In the Western context, super apps have also gained prominence, albeit with a slightly different approach and at a slower pace.

Social media giants like Meta are expanding their functionalities to include shopping and payments, attempting to create a broader ecosystem. Also, ride-hailing services like Uber have diversified into food delivery and financial services, showing parallels to the Asian super app model.

However, certain challenges exist for super app developers in the US and Europe where app markets are highly competitive and established, with numerous apps already catering to specific needs quite well. This saturation makes it challenging for new super apps to break through, or for existing ones to increase their market share for services that are beyond its original offering.

Many Western consumers are accustomed to using specialized apps for specific tasks, leading to a different mindset when it comes to adopting all-in-one platforms. Concerns about data security and market fairness also play a role.

What About Japanese Super Apps?

City view of Shibuya crossing showcasing users of Japanese super apps

Japanese consumers are known for their distinctive preferences and behaviors, which significantly influence the design and features of technologies, programs and apps in the country. When it comes to the super app race and widespread adoption, localization is incredibly important.

From language nuances to design aesthetics, only a few major players (LINE and Rakuten) have been successful at catering to Japanese preferences and creating a seamless user experience.

Unlike some other Asian countries, Japan’s super app adoption is characterized by a cautious approach and a preference for specialized services. High levels of loyalty also prevent some users from switching from their favored platforms to new ones.

While the concept of integrated services is appreciated, quality, reliability, and data security are equally important. And these factors have led to a unique super app landscape, where platforms strive to meet consumer demands for convenience while navigating the cultural values that define the Japanese consumer experience.

Leading Contenders in the Japanese Super App Race — LINE vs Rakuten

While there isn’t a single dominant super app in Japan today, the two biggest platforms to have made strides in integrating multiple services and commanding vast user bases are LINE and Rakuten.


LINE Japanese super app

For those not familiar with the Japanese market, LINE is the no.1 messenger and social media app in Japan with over 90 million users.

One of the pioneers of the Japanese super app landscape, LINE started as a messaging app and expanded to encompass a wide range of services. From mobile payments and shopping to games and news, LINE now offers an ecosystem that caters to several aspects of a users’ daily routines.

HB Pro Tip: Unlike WhatsApp, its Western counterpart, LINE is a super app with advertising opportunities for businesses wanting to promote their product or service in Japan. To learn more, read out top tips on advertising on LINE in Japan.


Rakuten Japanese super app

This homegrown ecommerce giant Rakuten has a huge user base and receives over 470 million visits each month—second only to Amazon in Japan’s burgeoning ecommerce market.

More recently, it has ventured into banking, travel booking, streaming, entertainment, food and delivery services—positioning itself as an all-inclusive super app. The Rakuten Super App aims to provide a seamless experience by integrating these diverse services within a single platform.

Importantly, its loyalty program and emphasis on customer rewards for repeat customers/users have contributed to its popularity in Japan.

Learn More About the Japanese Ecommerce Market

More Contenders in Japan’s Super App Race

Professional using AI writing tools in Japanese

As is common in other nations, including China where both WeChat and Alipay compete for dominance, multiple platforms can offer super app-like functionalities in a single market. Some of the most popular platforms that fall into the super app category in Japan are below.


Man opening Japanese super app Mercari

While primarily known as a marketplace app, Mercari’s expansion into financial services, payments, and delivery illustrates its ambition to become a holistic Japanese super app.

Mercari receives a respectable 75 monthly visits (from 20 million monthly active users) and its user-friendly interface and focus on secondhand goods resonate with the growing desire for C2C shopping in Japan.


Exterior of office for PayPay Japanese super app

A mobile payment app, PayPay gained rapid popularity by offering cashback and discounts to users. It was launched in 2018 as a joint venture between SoftBank and Yahoo Japan, and has since become the most used cashless payment service in Japan with 49 percent of consumers reported using the QR code payment app at various stores and restaurants.

PayPay utilizes QR code technology, where users scan a QR code at the merchant’s point of sale to make a payment. The payment is deducted from the user’s linked bank account or credit card and is designed to provide a convenient and cashless way of making transactions.

Yahoo! Japan

Mobile app screen showing Japanese super app Yahoo!

Yahoo! is one of the most trusted brand names in Japan—especially among older demographics who still have strong loyalty for its services and features.

Yahoo! Shopping alone receives over 100 million visits each month, while the growingly popular Yahoo! Auctions platform receives an additional 92 million visits.

The Japanese Yahoo! app ecosystem ties together a wide range of services for its users and serves as a one-stop platform for various functions, including news, weather updates, email (through Yahoo! Mail), search functionality, finance, shopping, auctions, and more.


Navitime Japanese super app

Initially known for its navigation and travel-related services, Navitime has expanded its offerings to include mobile payments, shopping, and even deals on transportation and travel experiences.

At its core, it was developed to provide users with detailed transportation information, including train schedules, bus routes, walking directions, and real-time transit updates. The app is particularly useful for navigating Japan’s complex and extensive public transportation system, which includes vast networks of trains, buses, and subways.

Factors Influencing the Japanese Super App Race

Woman using Japanese super app to pay bill

Localization Japanese consumers have distinct preferences and cultural norms. Super apps that are well-localized and adapted to these preferences are more likely to resonate with users. Language, design, and user experience that align with Japanese sensibilities contribute to a positive reception.
Integration of Services Apps that seamlessly integrate a wide range of services, including messaging, entertainment, e-commerce, finance, and more, offer users convenience by reducing the need to switch between multiple apps. However, the quality of each individual service or feature is also incredibly important given the existing standards users may have for single specialized apps.
User Experience (UX) A user-friendly and intuitive interface is crucial for attracting and retaining users. Super apps that prioritize smooth navigation, easy access to services for both young and old, and personalized experiences enhance user satisfaction and encourage continued usage.
Trust and Security Privacy and data security are paramount for Japanese consumers. Super apps that prioritize strong security measures, transparent data handling, and clear privacy policies are more likely to gain trust and win over users.
Brand Reputation Established brands with a positive reputation in Japan, whether local or international, tend to have an advantage in gaining user trust and adoption. Recognition and trustworthiness play a significant role in users’ decisions to try out new services.
Innovations and Features Continuous innovation and the introduction of unique features can set a super app apart from the competition. Features that address emerging trends or solve existing problems can attract a loyal user base.

Japan Market Analysis – Key Insights for 2023

How Are Supers Apps Changing Japan’s Advertising Landscape?

Man using Japanese super app to order food and pay for online shopping

It is that super apps will be the next major battleground for advertising budgets as these platforms refine the way they monetize the hugely engaged audiences generating reams of rich, local data.

While the specific advertising features and tools available for brands may vary platform to platform, LINE and Rakuten present advertisers, both global brands and independent merchants, with a unique opportunity to reach users within their closed ecosystems—targeting them with personalized and location-specific offers at several touch points in their user journeys.

Takeaways for Brands and Marketers

Super apps present a dynamic and fertile ground for brands and marketers to engage with users in meaningful ways.

Specifically, advertising on super apps like LINE involves displaying promotional content within the app’s interface to reach its user base. Brands and marketers can create ads using various formats, such as banners, sponsored stickers, or interactive content. And these ads are strategically placed in relevant sections of the app.

By leveraging the capabilities of these platforms, collecting and analyzing vast amounts of user data, and tailoring campaigns to user preferences, it is possible for brands to create impactful and memorable experiences.

However, understanding the unique nature of individual super apps and adapting strategies accordingly is essential for brands and marketers looking to thrive in this evolving digital ecosystem.

  • Super apps accumulate vast amounts of user data due to their multifunctional nature. This data includes insights into user behaviors, preferences, purchasing habits, and more. Interpreting this data in the right way can lead to a deeper understanding of audiences that lead to more tailored and impactful ad campaigns.
  • Super apps integrate various services and functionalities, providing multiple touchpoints for user engagement. Brands must consider how to leverage these touchpoints to create multichannel campaigns that span messaging, e-commerce, entertainment, and more in a coordinated approach.
  • Some of the most fruitful opportunities are likely to come from contextual messaging and ad placement that aligns with users’ activities within the app.
  • Advertisers must understand that different services within a super app may have varying ad budgets, costs per click (CPC), and conversion rates. Brands and marketers should analyze these metrics across different services to optimize their ad spend and allocate resources effectively.

HB Pro Tip: Deciding whether to advertise on LINE, Rakuten, or Meta (Instagram & Facebook) depends on various factors, including your target audience, advertising goals, budget, and the nature of your business. Each platform offers unique advantages and considerations and Meta still offers one of the most sophisticated and cost-effective platforms for PPC advertising. Ultimately, the “better” platform depends on your specific business goals and your audience’s preferences and behaviors.

The Future of Super Apps in Japan

Shop employee using Japanese super app

The evolution of Japanese super apps mirrors the broader technological landscape, demonstrating how adaptability and the ability to meet changing user needs are crucial for success.

As super apps continue to shape the way we live, work, and interact with technology, their ongoing evolution promises to redefine our digital experiences in ways we can only imagine.

No double AI-driven recommendations, predictive analytics, and smart assistants within super apps will lead to user experiences that are even more unified and engaging. However, the popularity of Japanese super apps hinges on a blend of cultural understanding, user-centric design, technological innovation, and strategic execution.

As local players compete with global tech giants, the emphasis on localization, integration of services, and data-driven insights will continue to shape the trajectory of these platforms.

For brands and marketers, the landscape presents a plethora of opportunities to engage with users, understand their behaviors, and craft compelling campaigns that resonate with the uniquely Japanese digital experience.

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